Saving Ollie - Part 5 in a series about a shelter dog with severe behavior problems

Click to read Part 1
My series on Ollie the Great Dane has been on an unplanned hiatus for the last month. I hope some are still reading as I start examining some of the larger questions my experiences with Ollie and AAF have raised for me.

AAF volunteers worked independently, with little previous training experience and minimal guidance from me, to transform Ollie from the shelter’s most dangerous resident into one of its most popular social butterflies. I’ve never seen nor heard of anything quite like it in a shelter, but I don’t think it’s a fluke. AAF’s entire story is one of unusually successful volunteers. The No Kill movement places tremendous emphasis on the idea of animal sheltering as a community activity, but AAF takes this idea to an extreme. Volunteers built and still run the organization, which has only one paid staffer and a very hands-on board of directors.

The social culture at AAF demonstrates the clearest benefits of their approach. AAF’s lobby often feels more like the busy kitchen of a very large and industrious family than an animal shelter. Volunteers constantly come in and out radiating commitment and satisfaction in the work they’re doing. Whenever I visit, there are people cleaning runs, walking dogs, counseling prospective adopters, or even just hanging out. The dog runs are the cleanest I’ve ever seen. The dogs get more walks than most pets, and they seem to handle the stress of long-term confinement far better than at most shelters.

Although I’m certain that they occur, I’ve never seen an argument at AAF or heard anyone complain about its management. That’s saying something in an animal shelter, where the emotional nature of the work often leads to intense conflicts. The sense of shared purpose allows volunteers to see themselves as stakeholders in the shelter’s mission, which encourages them to take on unlikely projects like rehabilitating Ollie.

AAF’s esprit de corps stands in sharp contrast to other shelters I have worked with. One of those shelters in particular is almost the mirror opposite of AAF. It has a tremendous budget, multiple facilities, a huge staff, and very low morale. In many ways, it is unfair to compare it to AAF. They operate on dramatically different scales. The larger shelter handles far more animals and has a much broader mission than AAF’s. Their differences, however, provide an entry point for discussing important questions about what shelters should be. In this post, I’ll concentrate on the advantages of AAF’s approach. I’ll address the larger shelter’s advantages next time.

The different atmospheres at these 2 shelters start with their management structures. AAF’s executive director Eric Johnson plays a huge role in fostering the upbeat collaborative spirit of the organization. He greets every volunteer that comes in by name, encourages them to take initiatives to help the shelter or its residents, and expresses sincere appreciation for even the smallest contributions. He knows the shelter animals very well because he does the intakes for most of them and plays a large role in their day-to-day care. He also answers the phone and does adoptions. In short, he’s closely involved in everything the shelter does, and helps encourage a feeling of comity amongst everyone there. Members of AAF’s board of directors take a similar hands-on approach.

The other shelter, in contrast, has a large administrative staff with offices and job duties far removed from the day-to-day business of intake, care, and placement of homeless animals. I believe this distance creates huge problems for the shelter. Surprisingly fierce turf battles and Byzantine bureaucratic maneuvering seem to consume much of the administrative staff’s time and energy. During my time there, adoption center workers complained bitterly about management’s lack of engagement with the shelter’s core mission, and a quick review of the organization’s spending decisions supported their complaints. The decision makers’ knowledge and duties focused more on fundraising and PR than on animal care, and –unsurprisingly - so did their budget priorities.

A failure to invest resources in workers performing its core tasks, for example, had an incredibly negative impact on the shelter’s mission. Salaries barely exceeded minimum wage. Training was inadequate. Raises – regardless of performance – were essentially non-existent. The low pay and poor working conditions led to a staggering turnover rate. Even the better-compensated adoption center directors seldom lasted more than a few months. Turnover meant chronic staff shortages, overworked employees, and suspicion amongst even the most dedicated staff towards anything that might increase their workloads. In a vicious cycle, management cited high turnover as a justification for not committing resources to proper staff training.

Collaboration with the broader community wasn’t much better. The shelter welcomed volunteers, but provided little support for them when I started volunteering. Volunteers perceived management as hostile to initiative of any kind, and early attempts to institute a modest behavioral enrichment program were repeatedly rebuffed. Volunteers seldom stayed involved for long. Virtually all the local rescue groups and many other shelters held a dim view of the shelter. It’s hard to imagine an environment less conducive to initiative, innovation, or the involvement of the general public in collaborative projects to further the shelter’s mission.

I’m painting a pretty dark picture here. It’s one that many of the shelter’s employees (current and former) and members of its local animal welfare community would affirm. It is, however, far from the full picture. Larger organizations inherently develop bureaucracies. Bureaucracy means turf battles, resistance to change, and a tendency to turn inward. This shelter experienced those negative consequences of size and structure in spades.

Size and structure, however, also confer significant advantages. In spite of its problems, the larger shelter has achieved wonderful things that a smaller organization probably could not. That includes initiatives that solved some of the problems I mentioned above. As much as I love the sense of happy chaotic community at AAF, its organizational model has its own limitations. I’ll explore a few of those in a discussion of the larger shelter’s successes in my next post.

Click to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4,  

Final Chapter

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